‘Recycles’ help shield Mexico health workers from COVID-19 stigma

MEXICO CITY (AFP) – Daniela Chavez, a doctor, took up cycling to work after she felt discriminated against by a taxi driver.

Her bicycle was a gift from activists who have been rounding up bicycles – dubbed by one organisation as “recycles” – to donate to healthcare workers in Mexico City, in a bid to protect them from being stigmatised for looking after patients with COVID-19.

Chavez said that as soon as she climbed inside the cab after a hard day in a public hospital, the driver asked if she was a doctor and where she worked.

Fearful she would suffer an aggressive response if she told him, as some colleagues have, the 26-year-old decided to get out instead.

“I don’t know if it’s psychosis! We know we’re people at risk, we always have been, but now that people discriminate against us for doing a dignified profession it’s unprecedented,” she told AFP.

Diego Villafuerte, medical intern rides on a bicycle given by the Bicitekas Foundation in Mexico City. PHOTO: AFP

As coronavirus spread in Mexico, health care workers faced physical aggression on top of suspicion by people who viewed them as sources of infection.

But in April, two cycling organisations came to their help, launching an initiative on social media inviting people to donate unused bicycles or spare parts to be given to healthcare workers.

Simultaneously, Bicitekas and Alcaldia de la Bicicleta invited health care workers to apply online to receive a bicycle.

At their workshop in the central neighbourhood of La Escandon, between pedals, wheels and saddles, a group of activists spend 20 hours a week repairing and assembling bicycles.

The initiative is also aimed at reducing the risk of doctors and nurses infecting people while using public transport in the city of more than 15 million.

“At the start of this outbreak we asked ourselves what we could do to support healthcare personnel who were being discriminated against on their journeys, and unfortunately, attacked due to their profession,” said Agustin Martinez, the founder of Bicitekas.

The organisation has received 240 requests for a “recycle”, as its bikes are called. So far they have delivered around 50.

For Diana Garduno, a 30-year-old nurse, it was a welcome boon as her bike was stolen in a burglary.

She said she’s been afraid since one of her colleagues was doused with a hot drink while walking in the street.

“It’s depressing how we give everything for a patient to be well and once we’re outside we suffer this type of aggression,” said Garduno.

The Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Director for Mexico and Central America Loic Jaeger told AFP that these attacks were taking place in a context of “the normalisation of violence” that spills over from organised crime.

“If we had more knowledge, there wouldn’t be these kind of actions against healthcare workers,” added Diego Villafuerte, 23, an intern in a private clinic who has received a bike.

On Monday, Mexico began the reopening of “essential” sectors of its industry, including mining, aviation, construction and the manufacture of transport equipment, following more than two months of lockdown.

The country of 127 million people has recorded more than 10,600 deaths and almost 100,000 coronavirus cases.

Under the easing of virus restrictions, Mexico City has also allowed the sale of bicycles, the mode of transport celebrated internationally on Wednesday in an annual event inaugurated by the United Nations (UN) in 2018.

The Mobility Secretariat is due to build 54 kilometres of cycle lanes to help give some of the five million people who used the metro every day before lockdown another option. That will hopefully reduce the spread of COVID-19, while adding to the 88 kilometres that already exist in Mexico.

The long-term aim is to reach 600 kilometres by 2024.

With the bicycle “you can keep a healthy distance, it’s not infectious,” said the secretariat’s chief Andres Lajous.